November 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In my opinion, entrepreneurs make the world go around: they’re the real ‘job creators’, and I believe that we should be doing everything possible to encourage them. For example, through Kiva I’ve participated in more than a hundred loans to help up-and-coming businesspeople in the developing world. Over the years, I’ve also been fortunate to have firsthand experience working with some exceptional entrepreneurs in the US, Europe, and Asia. I’ve really enjoyed doing whatever I can to help them move their businesses forward.
In particular, I’ve witnessed the tremendous potential for women-led enterprises. I’m especially proud of the work that my wife has done to start and grow her successful business. Thus, I’m happy to have recently joined Astia as a client advisor. What’s Astia?
Astia is a global not-for-profit organization built on a community of men and women dedicated to the success of women-led, high-growth ventures and to the eradication of the need for the organization within the decade.
I’m looking forward to working with the Astia team and their entrepreneurs.
November 3, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A while back, I put together a list of five of the most typical technical marketing mistakes we see at Think88. Over the years, we’ve also observed that the most successful technical marketing collateral initiatives have a certain number of things in common. We’ve distilled this into a list of seven questions that we ask whenever we work with a client to start the ball rolling on one of these engagements. In fact, it’s a core part of our methodology. These questions include:
- How will this new material fit in with the company’s overall messaging and strategy?
- How will you present it to the market?
- Who are the targeted readers for it?
- Will other content refer to this material? Will this material refer to other content?
- What do you want the reader to do after they’ve finished reading this material?
- How will you measure and quantify its impact?
- Will the sales department be involved throughout the design and development process?
Going forward, I’ll be writing blog posts about each of these questions. In my opinion, the only way to succeed and justify the investment in time and money for new collateral is to have satisfactory answers to the above list.
August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
We’ve finally reached the end of my series on the seven characteristics that define the most successful sales engineers. I saved this one for last, because all the traits I described earlier don’t really matter if you’re not self-sufficient.
In a nutshell, if you’re looking for day-to-day guidance on what you should be doing, sales engineering is not for you. I’ve seen many people that possess each of the six traits I described earlier, yet still flail when it comes to day-to-day SE work.
Here are just a few of the realities of being an SE today, each of which demands self-reliance:
- You work from home. You may not see a manager or peer for days on end.
- You’re on the road – a lot! Sometimes these trips last one day; sometimes they seem to go on forever.
- You’re dealing with flattened management. In fact, many companies have abolished dedicated sales engineering leadership altogether. Instead, these outfits have their SEs report to sales management. One byproduct of this approach is that many SEs have managers who fundamentally don’t understand what an SE is supposed to do.
- You serve several sales reps. Naturally each rep has his/her own idea about how you should prioritize your work.
- You’re responsible for multiple sales opportunities. These deals are almost never in sync, which means you must juggle different timelines.
- You represent multiple products. Sometimes your firm built these offerings, and sometimes they’ve been assembled piece-by-piece through acquisitions.
- You’re the first line of technical support for your prospects. Don’t believe me? Ask a sales rep about their thoughts on letting your standard technical support organization care for potential clients that haven’t signed on the dotted line yet.
Taking the initiative is the best way to prosper in this challenging environment. Here are three core ways to make this happen:
- Be an active participant that drives the sales process forward. Since prospects will reveal things to an SE that they never would to a sales rep, the SE serves as the eyes and ears of the entire company. Of course, you need to coordinate your efforts with your sales rep: when done right, this teamwork is beautiful to behold.
- Build – and nurture – relationships. It’s my contention that the SE must cultivate a wider range of relationships than anyone else in the entire company – except the CEO. Think of all the people that the SE must work with in addition to prospective customers:
- Other SEs
- Post-sales professional services
- Technical support
- Stay current on technology. Obviously, you must keep up with your portfolio: driven by competition and innovation, your products are always in flux. This means that there’s never a time where things are static. And since far too many companies have slashed training budgets, it’s up to you to do the necessary research. But you must also stay current on the larger technology landscape outside of your firm. After all, continual evolution demands continual self-driven study. As an SE, clients will look to you for credible knowledge, and appearing out-of-date or blissfully ignorant is a sure-fire way to torpedo a sale.
July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
“No one ever won an argument with a customer” is a time-tested adage that is doubly true when interacting with a prospective client. In this next installment of 7 Habits of the Most Effective Sales Engineers, I depict why diplomacy is such an essential talent for the sales engineer.
To begin, it’s vital to remember that the solution that’s being pitched during the technical sales cycle will typically require alterations to the way the prospect conducts business. In some cases, the proposed new technology will displace existing solutions – often developed, supported, or sponsored by the prospect’s employees. And let’s face it: new solutions really can cost them their jobs. For example, an insurance company doesn’t need a whole team of programmers to build and maintain an internally developed ERP package when they can acquire and support a best-of-breed product for a fraction of the cost.
For these reasons – and many others – it’s very common for the prospect’s technical staff to feel threatened by new products, and to find innovative ways to monkey wrench a sales cycle. These can range from passive aggressive techniques all the way up to belligerent confrontations. Every SE faces these types of situations but only the most diplomatic SEs can gracefully cope with these intimidating circumstances with dignity and poise.
Here are some simple recommendations about how you can incorporate the fine art of diplomacy in your technical sales cycles:
- First and foremost: you should always maintain professionalism, even when being berated by a socially maladjusted engineer during a sales call.
- Maintain credibility by having a solid and relevant technical background without feeling the need to throw your PhD in engineering from MIT in your prospect’s face.
- Demonstrate extensive product knowledge without denigrating your competition.
- Don’t be too sales-y: that’s the sales rep’s job. And it’s the rep’s job to alert the prospect’s management if their technical staff are acting in bad faith to disrupt a legitimate sales cycle.
- Communicate clearly and concisely, both verbally and in writing: stick to the point, back it up with facts, and avoid hyperbole.
- When you have proof that someone from the prospect is wrong on a technical matter, point it out gently: there’s no need to celebrate your victory.
- Finally – although passion about the job is a good thing, don’t get too emotionally involved in the sale. Win or lose, you’ll be on to the next deal soon.
June 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
In the fifth episode of the 7 Habits of the Most Effective SEs, it’s time to turn our attention to the considerable role that communication plays in the technical sales process. As a key participant in the sales organization, SEs naturally have major customer-facing responsibilities. In general, it should come as no surprise that an articulate SE will outperform one that can’t communicate. After all, think of all the situations where an SE must disseminate information:
- Conducting a needs analysis
- Delivering a technical presentation
- Responding to an RFP
- Performing a demo
- Replying to questions
- Presenting results of a proof-of-concept
- Helping transition a prospective client to a paying customer
As you can see from this abbreviated list, these exchanges are verbal as well as written, so a top-level SE will excel at both types of communication. In terms of SE writing talents, poor spelling and grammar can cause a prospect to question your organization’s standards. Frankly, modern spell checkers and grammar tools mean that there’s no excuse for this kind of sloppiness. For those SEs that are uncomfortable in speaking situations, there are some very helpful courses that can help improve their presentation skills: I’ve seen quite a number of shy, unassuming SEs blossom when given proper training.
When it’s time to hire an SE, I recommend setting up a phone interview first. Some people aren’t comfortable on the phone, but if this type of interaction is part of your sales cycle then it’s a must for your candidates. After that, set up a face-to-face interview and ask the candidate to deliver a presentation about their current product or service. If they can’t (or won’t), then I suggest moving on: I’ve personally witnessed candidates that had been working for the same company for 5+ years yet were unable to pitch their product!
Assuming the candidate makes it past the initial phone and in-person screen, ask for writing samples. RFPs and other detailed customer-oriented documents are ideal. And don’t buy the ‘confidentiality’ excuse: these missives can be sanitized or excerpted yet still demonstrate if your candidate is likely to be a ‘Great Communicator’.
May 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
Here’s an old technical sales joke for you:
Q: How many SEs does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: I don’t know at the moment, but I’ll get back to you with an answer soon.
In this next installment of the 7 Habits of the Most Effective SEs, it’s time to see how a little confidence can go a long way. Many people think that confidence is like charisma: either you’re born with it, or you lack it your whole life. When it comes to being a capable SE, I don’t subscribe to that point of view. Instead, I’ve always felt that knowledge and experience breed certainty. Earlier in this series, I described how being technically skilled and inquisitive can pay big dividends, and confidence just happens to be one of those benefits.
Regardless of whether it’s in your DNA, or you gain it through the school of hard knocks, confidence is essential in technology sales. SEs will often find themselves in front of potentially hostile audiences, from scowling executives in dark suits to skeptical middle managers to jeering technical wizards. Each audience considers the SE to be an inferior:
- The executives view the SE as a peon attempting to extract large sums of money from the firm.
- The middle managers view the SE as a mere technician with no business sense.
- And the technical wizards view the SE as an impostor, incapable of understanding their unique technical requirements.
The SE must be able to overcome the natural instinct to flee in terror, instead relying on their confidence to gracefully face whatever challenges lie ahead. Prospects pick up on this self-assurance, too, which can help cement a winning sales cycle. Finally, it’s critical to remember that it isn’t necessary (or advisable) to answer every question on the spot, but they must be addressed promptly afterwards – just like the light bulb question I listed above.
February 12, 2012 § 4 Comments
In this next segment of the continuing saga of what makes an effective sales engineer (SE), it’s time to talk about technical skills. While it’s hard to make sweeping statements, in general the ideal SE will possess a good measure of technical expertise: after all, ‘engineer’ is part of their title.
But technical talents are just the start of the story: it’s even better if they pair this knowledge with hands-on practical experience. Some SEs will have learned your technology as users or developers in an IT shop. Others will have represented competing products at other vendors. And the most motivated candidates will have invested the time and effort to learn it on their own.
Naturally, the ideal technical background is highly determined by the job’s requirements. For example, selling a consumer-oriented SaaS solution has very different necessities than representing infrastructure aimed at software developers.
When I was hiring SEs, I always kept these factors in mind:
- Does the candidate have a degree or not? It’s certainly helpful, especially when selling highly complex solutions or targeting C-level buyers. However, it’s not necessary to have a computer science degree. In fact, in some cases being overly technical can be a drawback – SEs have ‘sales’ in their titles, after all.
- How deep is the candidate’s technical expertise? By necessity, SEs must be spread a mile wide and an inch deep. This can be very frustrating to someone who is very technically skilled and likes longer-term engagements.
- How much relevant real-world experience does the candidate have? A background in implementation and/or managing ongoing operations was especially appealing.
In my experience, the most important attribute is the SE’s ability to rapidly master a new technology; in fact, the most effective SEs delight in picking up new proficiencies and relish the challenge. Find an SE who has a history of quickly acquiring new skills, and you’ve probably picked a winner. One final thought on expertise: don’t forget to evaluate the candidate’s writing skills. Ask to see samples of reports, RFPs, and so on.
February 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
We’ve now come to the last of the five most common technical marketing mistakes that I’ve observed – expecting internal team members to produce all of your marketing collateral on a timely basis. Given that Think88 specializes in technical marketing materials and sales methodologies, it may seem like pointing this out is somewhat self-serving – and it is. But my observation is valid whether you hire us or someone else.
Organizational politics often get in the way of overcoming this fault. After all, creating collateral is a big part of the job description for many people in the marketing department. Yet if you were to ask the average VP of Marketing (not to mention the VP of Sales), they’d likely say that they suffer from a significant marketing content shortfall.
If so many people are charged with building marketing collateral, why is there such a critical shortage of these materials in so many companies? I’ve seen three primary causes:
- Staffing. These days, even the largest technology leaders are trying to run lean-and-mean. Unfortunately, as a cost center marketing is often in the crosshairs, even though it performs vital work to bolster sales.
- Prioritization. Let’s face it: supporting active sales cycles is Job One for nearly everyone in the enterprise. Writing collateral is a second or third- level responsibility – at best.
- Vision. Sometimes, internal staff can’t see the forest for the trees. Getting a fresh viewpoint can serve as a catalyst for the whole team.
If you’re faced with trying to overcome a marketing content shortage, bear these points in mind:
- This deficit isn’t due to the laziness or incompetence of your team. It’s most likely because they just have too much to do, and not enough time to get it done.
- Add two to three outside vendors to the team. Naturally, we’d like to be one of them, but regardless of whom you choose, try to treat them as a trusted, strategic partner. Strive for short projects and long-term relationships.
- Use these vendors to fill in gaps. This lets you get materials to market faster, and permits your scarce internal staff to focus on more pressing needs – like helping to close business.
January 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
In this episode of the continuing series of common technical marketing mistakes, I point out why it’s so important to create marketing content using a well-designed methodology.
In our experiences at Think88, we’ve observed that the majority of organizations – big and small – don’t have a comprehensive marketing content delivery methodology.
This isn’t a surprise: it can be difficult to reconcile the creative aspects of content creation with the often-rigid demands imposed by a methodology. And process is the first thing to go out the window when time and/or money gets tight. But in the absence of a methodology, the end result usually ends up disappointing everyone involved, including marketing, sales, development, and most importantly: prospective customers. Plus, ad-hoc procedures usually means vital marketing content takes longer to get delivered.
Consequently, it’s a really good idea to invest some time and design a methodology that meets your needs, and then follow it! It can (and should) be updated from time to time, and it doesn’t have to be fancy or very time consuming. However, it should be logical and tailored to the business.
At a minimum, a marketing content methodology should include these steps:
- Advance consultation with sales. Remember that this means more than just field sales reps: don’t forget telesales and sales engineering.
- Estimated results and ROI. How else will you know if your efforts were worth it?
- Outline or storyboard. This should include enough time for a thorough review. After all, it’s always easier to fix an outline or storyboard than the finished product.
- Comprehensive materials review. This should cover accuracy and clarity.
- Customer feedback. You want to know if you got your point across correctly, and if it matched their experience with your product or service.
- Integration with your marketing content roadmap. You do have a roadmap, don’t you?
In future posts, I’ll provide some examples of the building blocks that make up a well-designed methodology.
A final cautionary note: be careful of the ‘paralysis by analysis’ trap that can be engendered by a cumbersome methodology: the goal should be to create effective, high-quality marketing content that increases sales, not get caught up in an endless development cycle.
December 12, 2011 § 2 Comments
I’ve spent many years working as a sales engineer (SE) and then later leading sales engineering teams. Throughout my career, I’ve observed seven personality traits that separate the run-of-the-mill SE from the superstar. Since SEs are the great unsung heroes of the sales process, you definitely want to staff the best-of-the-best for this critical position. In this installment, I discuss why the most effective SEs possess an unyielding but properly targeted competitive spirit.
In a crowded market, the technical sales process is cutthroat: every deal is a brawl. Even though sales commission is typically only a small percentage of their overall compensation, the ideal SE takes a deep, personal interest in winning. This translates into a willingness to do whatever it takes to demonstrate the technical superiority of your offering. This might mean late nights configuring your solution or answering RFPs under tight deadline pressure. It also likely includes providing ad-hoc training to potential users and impressing executives of the need to choose your technology.
Unfortunately, I’ve encountered many SEs that are either too relaxed (“Why should I knock myself out? The product sells itself!”) or too competitive with their peers (“Why does that sales rep make twice what I do when I did all the hard technical stuff to win the deal?”). Incidentally, as an SE manager I found it easier to motivate the tranquil folks to step it up a bit than to get the SEs with commission envy to focus on their jobs.